September 15, 2019
The tension is growing between Jesus and the Religious Establishment. He’s been challenging everything held dear by the Pharisees and teachers of the law. He’s also been challenging the crowds who gather to listen to him.
Last week, we heard him tell us that, unless we commit ourselves fully to living our lives in him, we cannot call ourselves his disciples. Jesus is raising the bar, and we are beginning to understand what the disciples mean when they wonder out loud, “who then can be saved?” (Luke 18:26) or “this teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” (John 6:60) And if his own disciples are struggling, just imagine how hard it is for the religious leaders to grasp what Jesus is demanding of any who want to follow him. But there is one group of people who are eating up everything Jesus says.
It’s the outcasts, the sinners and tax collectors – the dregs of society – who gather around Jesus to listen to his teaching. They are getting as close to him as possible, so they don’t miss a word. And he lets them. In fact, he encourages them, and he comes to their homes for dinner as if they were just as important as the Pharisees. Because, to Jesus, they are.
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So he told them this parable:
“Which one of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness and go after the one that is lost until he finds it? When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders and rejoices. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’
Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance.
“Or what woman having ten silver coins, if she loses one of them, does not light a lamp, sweep the house, and search carefully until she finds it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’
Just so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.” (Luke 15:1-10)
These two parables are really just an introduction to the parable of the Prodigal Son, which we will hear during the season of Lent. As far as biblical scholars can tell, these three stories were always connected. The earliest manuscripts all agree that they were told as a unit. Jesus uses them to point out the need for repentance, whether you are a lost sheep, a coin, or a child who has run away God. But there are some subtle differences between the first two parables and the one they introduce.
For one thing, the theme of repentance we see so clearly in the story of the prodigal son isn’t as obvious in the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. Jesus has to make the connection for us when he says, “Just so, I tell you, there is rejoicing in heaven” whenever a sinner repents.
But a sheep can’t repent, and neither can a coin. In fact, we might be missing the point if we think these stories are primarily about a sheep or a coin. If we pay attention, we will notice that the shepherd and the woman seem to be the main characters. They are the ones who notice something is missing and go looking diligently for it. They are the ones who invite their friends over for a party when they find what they’ve lost.
So if these parables are more about the searcher than the object of the search, where does repentance come into the picture?
And that brings us to another thing that separates these two parables about searching for something that’s lost from the final story about the son who comes home. In the parable of the prodigal son, the father does not go out looking for his lost child. He waits for the son to return.
The only thing the three stories seem to have in common is a call for celebration when all is restored. The shepherd, the woman, and the father all invite their friends to come rejoice, because the lost has been found. And in the case of the sheep and the coin, we almost have to wonder if the cost of the celebration might be greater than the value of what is recovered!
What makes these stories so important to us has nothing to do with sheep or coins or even rebellious children who find their way back home. We have to go back to the very first verse of chapter 15 to remember why Jesus is talking about repentance in the first place: “Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to him. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, ‘This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.’”
Jesus tells these parables in response to the Pharisees who have been complaining about the time he spends with sinners. He even eats with them!
So what are they mad about?
- Are they jealous, because Jesus is ignoring them and they think they deserve all his attention?
- Do they think Jesus is not fulfilling his messianic purpose, because he associates with undesirables?
- Do they see Jesus’ engagement with known sinners as a sign he can’t really be from God, or else he wouldn’t associate with these unclean ones?
Michael K. Marsh writes that, at the deepest level, the Pharisees’ words are,
“ironically enough, a statement of the gospel. They have just spoken the good news. Jesus not only welcomes the sinners, he eats with them. Eating with them means there is relationship and acceptance. Jesus has aligned himself with them. He is on their side.
“Throughout the gospel stories Jesus chooses to hang out with the wrong kind of people. … He offered them something no one else could or would. That’s also why the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling. Jesus was breaking the law, crossing lines, and making God just a little too easily available.”
What the Pharisees fail to see, even though it may be plain to us, is the irony of their complaint. Yes, Jesus eats with sinners, exactly the same way he eats with Pharisees. Because… Pharisees ARE sinners, just as tax collectors are.
The most righteous and holy people on the planet are just as sinful and in need of grace as the lowliest scoundrel. The most righteous and holy people on the planet have just as much need for repentance as the worst criminal.
But do you notice something that’s missing from all three of these parables? We usually think of repentance in terms of confessing our sins so God will forgive us. We even say that as part of the assurance of pardon here in worship. “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9)
We have it in our heads that repentance means admitting our sin and turning away from it, in order to receive God’s forgiveness. It’s a transaction. We confess and repent, and in return God forgives.
But what if we consider that God has already forgiven us. Christ has already made everything right between God and us. God is just looking for us to come home.
You see, while Jesus makes it clear that our repentance is cause for great rejoicing in heaven, he also makes it clear that God is focused on finding. The word ‘find’ happens seven times in this chapter. Nowhere in these verses will you see the word ‘forgive.’ That’s what’s missing. And that might surprise you, until you realize what Jesus means when he talks about repentance.
Lois Malcolm writes, “Unlike the English word repentance, which implies contrition and remorse, the Greek word metanoia has to do with a change of mind and purpose — a shift in how we perceive and respond to life.” When God finds us in our lost state, being found changes us. Being found changes the way we think and the way we see life. We are already forgiven. We just need to be found, so God’s forgiveness can transform us. All of us – sinners and Pharisees alike.
It doesn’t matter if you grew up in church and tithe 10% of your gross income and show up every time the church doors are open. You still need God’s grace and forgiveness. You need finding. Your mind and purpose need changing.
Maybe it’s your belief that there’s only one right way to worship or serve or read the Bible that needs changing. Maybe it’s your need to be recognized and praised – which is really just a thinly disguised cry for love – that needs changing. Maybe your tendency to judge others while ignoring the sins hidden in your own heart needs to change. Maybe you’re really more like a Pharisee than you’d like to admit.
Or maybe you identify more with that riffraff of sinners and tax collectors. You still need God’s grace and forgiveness. You need finding. Your mind and purpose need changing.
It doesn’t matter if you never learned all the words to “Jesus Loves Me.” It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to find the books of Hosea or Jude in the Bible. It doesn’t matter if you’ve caused pain to others, or been hurt so deeply by others that you’ve built a fortress around your heart so no one can come close to you. It doesn’t matter if you have made fun of people who love Jesus. It doesn’t matter if you have said you hate God.
All that matters is whether you can see your need to turn around and come home to the one who has always loved you, and will always love you, no matter what.
The Pharisees thought they could make God love them more by living a holy life and following all the rules. The tax collectors thought God couldn’t possibly love anyone less than them, because of the evil things they’d done. But Jesus eats with Pharisees and sinners alike. There isn’t anything you can do that is so wonderful it will make God love you more, and there isn’t anything you can do that is so awful it will make God love you less than he does right now.
The Pharisees and the tax collectors were just like you and me. We all need the same thing. We need to know we are loved. We need to know where we belong. We need to turn away from our own destruction, whether we are destroying ourselves by self-righteousness or self-pity. And we need to turn to Jesus, who is waiting for our invitation to come into our lives, even as he invites us into his.
It doesn’t matter if you are a Pharisee or a tax collector. What matters is your willingness to repent, to let God find you, so that even the angels in heaven rejoice.
These parables – like every story in the Bible – are really not about our sinful character as much as they are about God’s character and God’s grace. Jesus reveals that character and grace in searching, finding, and rejoicing. Jesus is looking to see if we’ve taken our place at his table, or if we are missing, lost.
As Michael Marsh writes, “For Jesus, the defining characteristic of sin is not misbehavior, but being lost.” Christ’s searching, finding, and rejoicing are not three different things after all. They are all manifestations “of God’s one grace. They are the ongoing presence of God in Christ in each one of our lives.”
The only question is whether you will let God find you, and keep finding you as you turn to him moment by moment, to be changed by God’s deep love for you, so that all of heaven will rejoice.